I was painting a sign to welcome the neighborhood to our Thanksgiving Dinner, when Sammy came in and sat down next to me. He said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” Sammy has been clean from cocaine for a few years now. He is really proud of this accomplishment. Only now he uses alcohol to numb the deep pains of his life. Sammy has paranoid schizophrenia and struggles with intense bouts of anger that he doesn’t know how to manage.
I can only imagine the pain that his family has experienced, as they have tried to help Sammy. Sometimes his dad gives him money for food. Sometimes his brother helps him out. But this day, they had said, “No,” and he was frustrated. He has been living on the street this past summer, because the roommates he had last spring were using drugs and trashed the place where he lived. In his words, he couldn’t “tolerate the B.S. anymore.”
The weather has turned, and the nights are cold. The owners of the land where he was camping told him he can’t sleep there anymore, so he wants to find more permanent shelter. There’s a house for rent right near by. He could pay the monthly rent, but he would need help with the deposits. His dad (a very wealthy man) said, “No.” And I can understand why. But Sammy can’t. He was angry.
I continued painting my sign, while Sammy talked, ranted and cussed. When he’d said all he could think of to say, he told me, “I know there’s nothing you can do about it. I just needed someone to talk to. Thanks for helping me, Jamie.”
As he was standing to go, another young man walked through the door. This guy is new to our Community at Joe’s. He got kicked out of the place he was living, because he was caught using drugs. He’s now living outside in the camp down the street from us. He’s been coming to church on Sundays and recently told me he wants to “start over.” He said, “Miss Jamie, I wanna tell you somethin.” I asked him, “What’s up?”
He told me he’d been at Walmart buying a few things he needed. He had calculated the price he would have to pay, but when the cashier rang up his items, one of them cost only $5, instead of the $20 he had expected. He said, “I was so excited! I felt like I got blessed.” He went on, “And look at the weather today. It’s been such a nice day. I just feel like God is helping me, and I wanted you to know about it.” He then stepped back and spelled my sign out loud, “T-H-A-N-K-S-G-I-V-I-N-G. Just makin’ sure you spelled it right! Hahahaha!”
It was a brief interaction, but he just “wanted me to know.” I felt The Muse prompting me, “Today is a listening day. Pay attention.”
I finished painting the sign, and one of our guys helped me hang it at the end of the building. As I came back to the front door of the coffee shop, I saw a man getting out of his car. His shoulders were hunched, and he walked slowly, like his body hurt. He wore a knitted cap pulled down tightly over his ears and dark, prescription sun glasses. He looked familiar, but I hurried into the shop ahead of him. I had left the counter unattended for too long.
When he finally made his way through the door and came toward me, I recognized him. I haven’t seen him in four years. He left our Community abruptly and angrily. He had fallen into a relationship with a woman who told him we were not valuing his “gifts.” She told him we were holding him back and not giving him the position of authority he deserved. The last I had heard from him was a series of angry texts communicating the things we had never “let him do.” I had never even known he wanted to do any of those things. I was hurt and sad, and he would not respond to my appeals for a conversation. I saved those texts, and I’ve thought about him numerous times.
Now here he was, four years later, and looking lots of years older. I went to him and said, “Malcolm! It is so nice to see you! We have missed you!” I hoped for a hug, but he put out his hand. I shook it and invited him to sit down at a table with me.
The story is long and twisty, but Malcolm stayed with that woman these last four years. He loved her, and from what I can tell, he loved her well. Over the years, her health declined. He took care of her, as blood thinners made her life tenuous. With tears, he told me of the last night, a few weeks ago, when she would not allow him to help her up off the floor. He said, “I just got down there with her and slept on the floor beside her. When I woke the next morning, she was gone.”
He told me of difficulties with her family, one of her sons in prison, the other off honeymooning in the Caribbean who had told him, “You bury your dead. I’ll bury mine.” He said, “She was all I had, and I was all she had. I haven’t known what to do with myself these last weeks.” I listened while he told me so many details of their life together and the pain of his loneliness. He even mentioned that he doesn’t know what he has left to live for now. He apologized again and again for expressing too much emotion, for which I scolded him. “Now is the time for emotion, friend.”
When he seemed to run out of details to tell, I thanked him for coming to see me. I told him how much we have missed him and that I was so glad to see him. He said, “Miss Jamie, you’re such a nice lady. You were always such a nice lady. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think of who I could talk to, and then I thought of you. I was pretty sure I could come and talk to you.”
This was my day at Joe’s Addiction. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t fix anything. I can’t fix anything. But isn’t this what all of us want, what all of us need. So often we just need a nice person to listen and care about what is happening in our life. Maybe that’s the most important thing we can do.